A Cup of Coffee With Julian Semyonov

Times Book Editor

The announcement by the International Assn. of Crime Writers of "Semana Negra" (see The Book Trade, Page 8) prompted me to re-read my notes on a meeting last fall with Julian Semyonov, one of the godfathers of that recently formed group. Semyonov was in Los Angeles then to promote "Tass Is Authorized to Announce" (Riverrun Press), his novel about brave and resourceful KGB agents who foil a CIA-neo-Nazi plot against a Marxist state in Africa.

As the plot of that novel might suggest, Semyonov, a best-selling author in the Soviet Union, is no dissident. According to Soviet emigre Vassily Aksyonov, Semyonov is the Soviet Robert Ludlum. Semyonov's books may be sold on the black market, but that means little: Anything that anyone wants in the Soviet Union ends up on the black market. What counts is that he has official approval. He is tolerated even when he breaks the official rules.

Before Semyonov's arrival, I had done a little checking and learned from Wolfgang Kasack's "Lexikon der russischen Literatur ab 1917" that, well before the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, Semyonov, then a journalist, had been posted for a time to Kabul, a fact not mentioned in the information sent us by his publisher or in any press coverage I had seen. Why Kabul? I wondered; and when we met, I asked.

Semyonov answered that he had been sent to Kabul because he knew Farsi, one of the Afghan languages. He knew Farsi because he had attended the Oriental Institute of Moscow University. He had attended the Oriental Institute because he would not otherwise have been admitted to that university at all, being the son of an out-of-favor, once-imprisoned, old-line Jewish Bolshevik. The Oriental Institute was a relatively sleepy, unpopular corner of the university, he said, where political credentials were examined less carefully. For all that, when his father was imprisoned a second time, in 1950, Semyonov was expelled both from Komsomol, the Communist Youth League, and from the Oriental Institute. He was reinstated three years later, but only after Stalin had died.

An involved explanation, but to the point: Semyonov's long career in international intrigue began in the domestic intrigue of college admissions; and from that beginning, we may trace a plot within the plot of his rise to fame. The outer plot is his journey from the margin to his present position as consummate Soviet literary insider. The inner plot is his way of bringing a little of the margin along with him. Though he faithfully grooms the official Soviet self-image in his fiction, he also seeks where he can to rehabilitate his father's generation and to embarrass his father's persecutors by mentioning their domestic failures--crime on the streets, prostitution, bureaucratic paralysis, etc.

Such candor about both the past and the present is increasingly the order of the day in Moscow. But it was not so in 1965, Semyonov stressed, when he put Marshal Blyukher in his novel, "No Passport Needed." The name of Marshal Blyukher means nothing to American readers. To many ordinary Russians, however, or so Semyonov claims, it stands--more than do the names of Trotsky or Bukharin--for the betrayal of the 1917 Revolution. Blyukher, a military hero until he was purged in the late 1930s, was famous for saying to Stalin's face that he opposed him "because I am a Bolshevik." Semyonov's account of his literary politics is self-serving, but it is also coherent. He may be no Anatoli Rybakov, but in a notoriously difficult environment, he can point to at least a few moments when his work belongs to itself rather than to the party or even to the public.

"Tass Is Authorized to Announce" is, for all that, a boring novel. For American readers, it might actually gain in interest if the Americans in it were more interestingly offensive. Uncle Sam is the narrator's black prince, to be sure, but there isn't much real venom in his CIA minions. As in so much of our own spy fiction (or better, our covert-action fiction), plot is everything. The competing brands of ideology mean no more than flags at the Olympics. The popular appeal of the books is that of pure contest.

Semyonov, a professed admirer of Ernest Hemingway, another writer far more interested in the how than in the why of warfare, stops short of claiming as Hemingway did that there is a fraternity of the silent brave on both sides of any front and that the real line is drawn between them and the rest of us. But he does show as Hemingway also did a clear antipathy to talking everything out. The way of the strong is not the way of the interview. A character in "Tass Is Authorized to Announce" says: "Hemingway really is forgotten in the U.S. If he'd been born in the last century, then it would be another matter, but he's our contemporary. We knew him, we drank with him, and the girls told us how bad he was in bed, and his servants gave interviews about his greed. The 20th Century can't have classics, because of the power of the mass media. In Tolstoy's time there was gossip but today everything takes shape in banner headlines in the newspaper columns. . . . Try in the old days to call up Yasnaya Polyana and interview Tolstoy. Like hell! You'd have had to go in person, asking permission first. And that bound you, drew a line between him and us. . . . But today it's just a telephone call: 'Count, could you make a quick comment on 'War and Peace'?' "

What visiting Soviet writers, dissident or not, seem so often to lament in the United States is the absence here of a decent aristocracy. According to one of the Soviet heroes in "Tass Is Authorized to Announce," what the Americans, "with their loudness and their mercenary interests," fail to understand is " dignity. " The sentiment would do credit to a czar.

And yet Julian Semyonov in person is the antithesis of the Russian aristocrat if by that you understand some sniffish Nabokov or Stravinsky. His arrival at The Times with his publisher, John Calder, was, if anything, like the arrival of Laurel and Hardy. Calder--60-ish, slight, fair, a bit woebegone in appearance--was on that particular day, at the end of Semyonov's 10-day U.S. tour, utterly exhausted. Semyonov--stout, bearded, with a round, fleshy face and close-cropped, salt-and-pepper hair--was wearing a rumpled work shirt and (despite the heat) a leather jacket. He was sweating heavily, and he stank.

At our table in the coffee shop, Calder slumped back and looked dejectedly out the window. One wanted to loosen his tie and slip off his shoes. Semyonov hunched forward, gripping his coffee cup in both hands, and talked like a basketball coach in the last time-out of the last game of the championship.

Semyonov may be, as his detractors hint, a spy, but he does not look the part. In the United States, a country that has learned espionage from Britain, we expect a spy to be a long, languid, horse-faced chap, fearfully well-educated but determinedly casual about it. Hustle is not a word that we associate with the word spy. Hustle is indeed a word that I might associate with the name Semyonov.

For all Semyonov's surely genuine affection for Hemingway, the gladiator of Oak Park seemed to me, at that moment, to provide no clue to him. Hemingway was, after all, quintessentially American-upper-class. He was from money, as we like to say; and if he enjoyed trumping the European aristocracy, he would not have dreamed of overthrowing it. By contrast, there was something of the embattled prole about the man I was talking to. Hemingway had a wound. Semyonov has a grudge.

And recalling that grudge, I don't know that Ludlum is quite the American analogue either. The writer I think of instead is Nelson Algren--two-fisted, all right, but not in Hemingway's way, and angrier, far angrier. Hemingway was from the cool suburbs, Algren from the hot city.

Imagine meeting Algren in, say, 1955 in a dim, intense, un-air-conditioned coffeehouse near the University of Chicago, the kind of place that has a big bulletin board announcing political demonstrations. Nobody in the room is wearing a tie or a jacket. The waiters look just like the patrons.

Sitting across the table from you, Algren is alternately irascible and expansive. He thinks of himself as someone who, on principle, doesn't have this kind of conversation, and yet he never shuts up. He is determined that you--you, in particular --will not get up from this table before you have got a few things straight, whatever they've been telling you about him. He drops a lot of names, most of them with some measure of contempt.

Now, imagine Nelson Algren growing up in the Soviet Union rather than in the United States. Jewish? Yes, sure, but Jewish is the least of it. Ambitious? That's more of it. Extremely ambitious, indeed, and proud, but even that isn't the whole of it. Out to settle a few scores. That's close to the heart of it.

Out to settle a few scores. That's what it's like to have a cup of coffee with Julian Semyonov.

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